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Americas

Boules and booze: Bastille Day à la New Yorkaise

© Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24 | French-American sisters Emefa and Olivia Duho dress up for Bastille Day on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2014-07-14

The smell of scorched sugar and anise liquor floated through upper Manhattan on Sunday as Francophiles from across the city headed to 60th Street to seek out chocolate crêpes and iced pastis at New York’s annual celebration of French indulgences.

'Bastille Day,' as it’s known in the English-speaking world, has been celebrated in New York for nearly a century, with its first mention in the New York Times edition of July 15, 1917.

On that day, celebrations were both marred and inflamed by anti-German sentiment, three years into the First World War and amid a fierce struggle to restore the eastern Alsace-Lorraine region of France, under German control since 1870.

Almost a hundred years on, with Germany threatening only the World Cup title (and deservedly), there was no sense of national struggle; little mention even of the historic events that made July 14th France’s ‘Independence Day’.

In fact, most of the participants of Bastille Day on 60th Street were not even French.

“Around 80 percent of participants are actually American,” Isabelle Lefebvre Vary of the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), the cultural association which hosts the event, told FRANCE 24. “The day is really about learning about and enjoying French culture,” she said.

With three entire blocks closed off from traffic, an array of colourful stalls lined both sides of the street leading to Central Park, attracting what Lefebvre Vary estimated at 40,000 people.

Participants queued to buy loaves of pain de campagne, fresh macaroons and gourmet ham sandwiches, stopping at a central stage to watch cancan dancers perform as Jacques Offenbach’s familiar “Infernal Galop” boomed out, spiriting some in the street to dance.

In the basement at the FIAF centre, where bottled French specialties were available to try, two men grimaced as they took their first sip of pastis amid an anise fug that was sure to occupy the building for days to come. “It looks so refreshing but the taste is just… too much,” Louis, 32 from Connecticut said, looking to his French friend, Nick, 27, for backing. “It’s the liquorice,” Nick said, shaking his head. “If you don’t like liquorice…” The pair agreed they wouldn’t be buying a bottle today.

Outside, two women dressed from head-to-toe in red, white and blue were posing for photographs with a French mime artist. “We’ve come here every year since we were little, Emefa Duho, 32, and her sister, Olivia Duho, 23, told FRANCE 24. The girls, whose father is French, consider Paris their second home. “We’re half-half, we speak franglais - this party is made for us,” Emefa said.

A competitive edge in Brooklyn

Meanwhile south of the city and across the Manhattan Bridge, a fierce battle of pétanque, or French boules, was playing out in a crowded street in Carroll Gardens, a brownstone Brooklyn district also known as ‘Petit Paris’ due to its numerous French residents.

Enough sand to cover two blocks of street had been laid out to accommodate 64 teams, competitive enough to have met the registration deadline months in advance, for what organisers touted as the largest pétanque tournament outside of France.

The game, traditionally played on gravel lawns in town centres across the south of France, has become something of a niche pastime in the US, and according to its sponsors, it’s the country’s “fastest growing outdoor bowling game”.

“This is a very big deal,” Olivier Dufeu, 36, who is originally from Rennes but has lived in New York for the past 13 years, told FRANCE 24 half-jokingly. “I wait for this event for the whole year!”

Olivier’s team failed to win the tournament but had beaten off rivals in three of five games played, which they deemed cause for great celebration.

The pastis was flowing nicely in Brooklyn, where increasing numbers of party-goers were drawn to the workings of a wooden guillotine. “This is one of the best events in Brooklyn,” one bystander exclaimed as his girlfriend nervously levered her head into the fateful device.

A throng of hats and sunglasses spilled out of the district’s most popular French haunt, ‘Bar Tabac’, which sponsored the event, as others clamoured for a last drink from an outdoor bar before heading inside. “The party’s just starting!” somebody shouted. Meanwhile, workers began to shovel the masses of sand from the street, as others looked despairingly at mounds of plastic cups and plates piled high over the curb. It was going to be a long night for everybody.

Date created : 2014-07-14

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